Age of Bile

A nonprofit that's resolved our disputes for decades faces financial crisis

No more.

Now, Regal and his mediators are seeing an explosion in a kind of case where strangers meet, find shelter together, and then embark upon the darkest journey of their mortal lives. Now, if you're a roommate in a rent-controlled space for a few years, moving out means doubling or tripling the rent you pay. So roommates who despise one another can't separate their living conditions for months, or even years.

Just last month I received an invitation to an "exorcism" party, celebrating the long-awaited departure of a hated roommate. It seems the hated one had the annoying habit of becoming unemployed and smoking dope in the house, 17 hours a day. This had been the subject of a nearly two-year-long feud with his two involuntarily stoned roommates. They named the party celebrating the roommate's departure "The Thing That Finally Left." (The poor fellow moved to Los Angeles.)

"I believe the housemate cases are the ones with the biggest potential for violence. People want to kill each other; they hate each other's guts," Regal says. "They can't get out. Of all the disputes I deal with, I have more compassion for those guys, because they're stuck in that house. I've seen people get sick, ulcers. There's one famous case where a guy was stabbed fighting over a PG&E bill."

Well, nearly stabbed. The assailant tripped midlunge and broke his leg.(4)

And then there was the meek woman who descended into an everlasting lake of brimstone after inviting a bold woman to share her abode. The woman -- whose name I'll change to Meek -- arrived home one day to find her furniture rearranged, sans commentary. Another day, she found burning candles left about the apartment. The other woman -- whom I'll call Bold -- had been meditating, then left without snuffing the flames. Bold let Meek's cat out, and didn't let it back in. Meek tried to complain. Bold brushed her off. Conversations became confrontations.

It took three mediators nine hours to get the two women to agree to a list of household rules such as "Be polite," "Don't rearrange furniture without asking," and "If you don't feel like talking with the other person, acknowledge her and arrange for a discussion later."

And finally, "Bold will make a good-faith effort to find a new apartment."

I wish them peace.

But today, making a good-faith effort to find an affordable S.F. home is the same as making a bad-faith effort. Neither works.

If I look in a stranger's eye tomorrow and see the glint of death, I will imagine having seen the eyes of Meek, or Bold, or any of the thousands of San Franciscans bound by master leases and hate. This cancer can only metastasize into our city's public life, where already animosity toward someone is the touchstone for almost every discussion of public policy. District-by-district elections promise to factionalize the Board of Supervisors. This fall's ballot debates seem to all be centered around hatred of one group or another: dot-commies, taxi drivers, landlords, et al.

In interpreting our world through the language of enmity, we may be lighting a fire that can't be quenched.

Since 1976, Community Boards has led the world in trying to help people to just get along. The group has inspired hundreds of similar peace-through-mediation organizations around the country. Schools all over the world use conflict-resolution training lessons written by Community Boards, lessons that include advice such as: "Aggression happens ... when two people are not willing to listen to each other's side of the problem or talk about it. Instead they attack the other's ideas or values."

Talk directly, mediators are trained to tell combatants. Don't antagonize. Don't judge -- give information instead. Relax, listen, and let your listening show. Talk everything through. Come to terms, then hold up your end.

Over the years, Community Boards' hundreds of volunteers have taught thousands and thousands of San Franciscans these simple lessons, whether they were straights objecting to the habits of new gay neighbors; whites bickering with African-Americans; Russians, Irish, Asians, Latinos -- whoever had a problem with whomever. Though the antagonists didn't necessarily come to like each other, after a couple of hours face to face with their foes, with the help of three mediators, they generally learned to get along. The courts, the police, the city's rent board, and numerous other agencies refer combatants to Community Boards. Many citizens, at the end of their ropes, turn to the Boards on their own.

Now, at the dawn of San Francisco's Bilious Age, when Community Boards is needed most, the nonprofit group is in trouble.

The lease that Community Boards has for its Market and Van Ness office suite expires in April. The rent will double, and the group will have to take smaller quarters elsewhere, if it can find them. That's not even the worst of the problem. The foundations that once funded Community Boards have reduced their support in recent years, preferring to fund start-up charities, rather than standbys.

Community Boards used to fund part of its work by selling conflict-resolution guides to schools. But business has declined lately. While almost every school district wants to teach its students these skills, more and more schools seem to be buying their materials from for-profit mediation firms -- firms that have largely borrowed their strategies from Community Boards of San Francisco.

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